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Chairman of Senate redistricting panel threatens to call impasse

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 21, 2012 - The new commission set up to draw boundary lines for the Missouri state Senate could declare an impasse Wednesday, the day after concluding a swiftly organized series of public hearings.

Chairman Doug Harpool, a Democrat, said today that he was prepared to take such action unless Republicans on the panel back off of their insistence that the map be drawn so that 70 percent of the 34 seats would be held by Republicans. If an impasse is declared, judges will take over the map-drawing.

Harpool and other Democrats say they are willing to support a map where 60 percent of the districts lean Republican. "I'm hoping that what I'm hearing is political posturing," Harpool said after Tuesday's hearing in the state's Wainwright building downtown.

St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann, one of five Republicans on the 10-member commission, said he wasn't commenting until the panel has completed its business.

Harpool said he is committed to getting a map approved, or drawn by judges, as soon as possible since candidate filing is supposed to begin soon. Filing currently is scheduled to start Feb. 28, but the state Senate has approved a bill moving the filing launch to March 27. The state House is expected to act this week.

"There are really good people who want to run for office, and they deserve to know what districts they will need to run in," Harpool said.

The commission was formed after an earlier map, drawn by judges, was tossed out by the Missouri Supreme Court, largely on procedural grounds.

How best to help elect minorities

At Tuesday's hearing, the chief issue for most of the witnesses concerned how many Senate districts should have an African-American voting majority; they also wanted to know how high a percentage would be needed for those districts to be represented by African Americans.

Adolphus Pruitt, president of the St. Louis chapter of the NAACP, said he wanted to see majority-minority populations in the 4th District in St. Louis and 13th and 14th districts in north and northwest St. Louis County. He said he found it "unacceptable" that the minority population in the 13th District had been reduced to 35 percent in the proposed map filed by Harpool over the weekend.

Harpool said later that Pruitt may not have been aware that the proposed map bolsters the minority population of the 4th District, in St. Louis, so that both the 4th and the 5th districts in St. Louis have majority minority populations.

Meanwhile, former state Sen. Joan Bray, D-University City, called for the commission to draw a map where as many districts as possible are competitive, with voters closely split between Republicans and Democrats.

Bray is among the leaders of a group, called Let Missourians Decide, that is seeking competitive districts at all levels of government. "Districts should be drawn to reflect the legislative reality," she said. "Not to protect incumbents."

But Republican committeeman John Judd, of south St. Louis County, didn't share that view. He called on the commission to revisit a proposed map -- tossed out last spring by an earlier commission --that had been drawn up by the St. Louis region's existing Republican and Democratic members of the state Senate.

In a related development, the state Supreme Court will hear debate next Monday on a lawsuit filed by opponents seeking to overturn the redistricting map for the state House.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.